ATLANTA -- With the election two days away, Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes and Republican challenger Sonny Perdue accused each other Sunday in a debate televised statewide of playing the race card.
Perdue accused Barnes of mailing inflammatory campaign material over the weekend to African American voters, warning them that Tuesday's voting was a matter of "they" versus "we."
Barnes charged Perdue was trying to divide the state by promising to allow a public referendum on the new state flag Barnes pushed through the 2001 Legislature that all but eliminates the Confederate fighting banner from the field.
The Confederate symbol was added to the state flag in 1956 amid Southern segregationist defiance.
Barnes, who has swamped Perdue in fund-raising and advertising, holds the lead going into Tuesday's vote, according to a poll released last week.
The debate, which included Libertarian Garrett Michael Hayes, was the third and last of the governor's race.
Perdue, a former state senator who voted against changing the flag, began the exchange by holding up the flyer and asking Barnes, "Who is 'they' and who is 'we' in this kind of demagoguery?"
According to the Perdue campaign, the flyer included a picture of an African American family on one side and photos of Confederate flags and Perdue signs on the other with the label, "When they win, we lose."
Barnes replied, "I don't know what you're talking about. We haven't sent that out. But I will tell you this: we're not the party and I'm not the candidate that has made an issue out of changing the Georgia flag and that wants to reopen this issue to divide us even further."
Perdue replied: "I am not the candidate nor the party that is trying to divide this state by sending out race-baiting literature to African American families ... and it is unforgivable that you would try to split us apart like that."
When Barnes insisted Perdue has traveled the state posing for local newspapers in front of the old Georgia flag, the Republican objected: "That is absolutely not true; absolutely not true."
At another point in the debate, Perdue defended his plan to hold a public referendum on the flag. "It's proper in a democracy for people to express their opinion, and for us to heal, I think that's what we must do."
On another subject, Perdue questioned whether the state will ever see ground broken on a Daimler-Chrysler plant Barnes announced last month will be built in Georgia. The Republican called it a political announcement featuring "fictitious jobs."
"Listen, Sonny," Barnes said. "I know you're against everything. Don't be against this ... Let's be happy with what we got. Let's not throw dirt on this."
Perdue replied, "I'll be happy when we get the jobs."
Barnes, meanwhile, gave a strong public push for Augusta National Golf Club to admit women as members.
"I would encourage Augusta National to undertake to admit women. I don't think in this day and time you should have an exclusionary rule."
Hayes, who has offered the best one-liners of the debate series, kept his streak going in Sunday night's encounter, saying the redistricting plans created by the Georgia Legislature last year could have been drawn better by "a drunken orangutan with a box of crayons."
As in previous debates, Barnes charged that Perdue would unravel education reforms he contends are beginning to pay off, while Perdue criticized Barnes for SAT scores which have fallen to 50th in the nation.
Perdue returned to that theme in closing, saying voters have a choice between two different styles of leadership. "Gov. Barnes thinks he alone knows best how we should live our lives ... If he knew best, we wouldn't be last in SAT scores."
Barnes, too, spoke of differing leadership styles. "I see a Georgia not dark and dreary where everything is wrong ... (but rather) a Georgia full of hope, opportunity and promise."
Hayes argued the two major party candidates aren't all that different, saying their key similarity is "they feel government is the solution to your problems. I don't believe that."
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